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When Japanese car manufacturers were ready to explore the world, their first choice for export destination wasn’t in Asia. It was Australia. As early as August 1958, the first Japanese light car to reach Australian shores since World War 2 was a Datsun. By 1968, a dozen Japanese brands were established in the country.
Between June 1965 and August 1967, the cover of Wheels magazine would feature a Japanese model no less than 9 times! The first model to have that honour was the Daihatsu Berlina in June ’65, followed by the Hino Contessa, Toyota 2000GT, Toyota Corona, Datsun Cedric, Mazda 1000, Mazda 1500, Toyota Corolla, Datsun 1600 SSS and the tiny Honda Scamp in July 1968.
Japanese manufacturers used Australia as a trial export market before spreading to the US and Europe, and it worked very well for them. In those ten years they managed a perfect landing in Australia, a very significant event in a market that was then dominated by US and English brands. It was the start of a complete reshuffle of the Australian car landscape that would result, 50 years later, in Toyota leading the way by far among many other very successful brands.
Very quickly after exporting their first models to Australia, some Japanese manufacturers switched to local assembly. Toyota was the first one, with the Corona being assembled in Melbourne as early as January 1966, followed by the Crown that same year and the Corolla in 1968, only one year after its Japanese launch. This makes Australia the first overseas country to ever assemble the Corolla!
The other manufacturer to opt for local assembly very fast is Datsun with the 1600 in 1967 and the 1000 in 1968. If the very first ‘Toyopet”, Datsun and Daihatsus didn’t impress with their quality, by the mid-sixties most Japanese cars were rather well rated by the press, with the bigger models like the Toyota Crown accepted as true threats for the class-leading Holdens and Ford Falcons…
To understand the importance of Australia in Japan and Toyota’s export strategy, a few figures are telling: in 1965, Toyota sold 17,300 vehicles in Australia, up 52% on 1964 and by far its strongest export market. This is to be compared with 8,900 units in the USA (+141%), 6,600 in South Africa (+16%), 3,700 in Thailand (+140%) and 3,000 in Canada where it was Toyota’s first year. In Europe, Denmark, Finland (2,800 each) and the Netherlands (1,500) are Toyota’s strongest markets in 1965.
Most Japanese manufacturers were busy creating vehicles in all categories at that time and it’s interesting to notice Isuzu doing very well in the passenger car segment (one that it has all but abandoned these days) with the Bellett and Florian. Similarly, Hino, now a heavy truck specialist, had the Contessa, loosely based on the Renault 8.
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